Strada Education Network recently released the results of its Strada Student Viewpoint survey, which collected more than 4,000 responses from students at four-year education institutions across the country. The most unexpected finding of the survey was that 44% percent of students chose problems such as stress, anxiety, and loneliness as their biggest challenge this fall, rating their emotional wellbeing as far more of a concern than traditional barriers such as cost, academics, and digital access.
Consequently, 13% of these students say the effects of COVID-19 will delay their plans for graduation, putting their ability to finish degrees in jeopardy and leaving career paths in doubt during one of the most difficult economic downturns in modern memory.
The events of 2020 have shown that, in addition to helping students overcome traditional barriers to education, educators and institutions must also find ways to help them manage the emotional toll of uncertainty and unrest.
In 2018, WGU implemented a new student support system called the Environmental Barriers Program (EVB). The purpose of the program is to track potentially harmful events such as natural disasters and then have program mentors work with impacted students to mitigate any negative effects. The EVB team faced its biggest event to date with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year.
The EVB team was already structured to respond to local disasters, and when the pandemic hit, they scaled their efforts to the entire student body, assessing impacts and developing mitigation plans. As of June, the EVB team found that 74% of WGU’s online students—more than 93,000—had been impacted by the pandemic in some way. Three students had experienced loss of life or home, 631 students had been displaced from their housing, and another 92,527 had been directly impacted by COVID-19 in other ways (educational field placements cancelled, testing and internet access barriers, tuition and financial concerns, personal impacts such as loss of wages or jobs, family and job stress, illness, loss of loved ones, etc.).
Data from the past seven months show that students who received contact from mentors and other interventions as part of the EVB program were 14% more likely to continue their studies than those who did not receive any type of intervention. (For more information on EVB and its response to COVID-19, refer to WGU’s Academic Engagement page for access to a free webinar entitled “Creating a Community of Care.”)
However, the EVB program’s success depends on several other student support systems which WGU had implemented well before the arrival of COVID-19.
Program Mentors. Each student is assigned a program mentor when they begin their studies at WGU. Mentors are experts in their field who help students with instruction, guidance, and support from enrollment to graduation. This year, program mentors have also been asked to assess students’ overall wellbeing and record their findings in EVB records. This one-on-one contact has proven essential in making sure students receive the support they need.
Financial Aid. At the beginning of the pandemic, WGU set aside $10 million for emergency student aid in addition to its regular financial aid and scholarship programs. Funds were used to provide emergency scholarships and non-tuition aid for necessary expenses such as rent and groceries.
Flexibility. As students dealt with obstacles such as job loss or overtime, increased family demands, and the cancellation of testing and/or planned educational placements, WGU faculty adopted a more flexible approach to academic progress. Students who needed it were allowed more time to complete their studies and given alternative testing options, among other solutions. This flexibility proved to be crucial to retaining students and helping them progress toward their degrees.
Our students face unimaginable pressure in their careers, academic pursuits, and personal lives. WGU has used the EVB program to help students maintain progress toward a degree while balancing the needs of their families and employers.
It’s imperative that higher ed institutions look beyond finances and academics to consider the personal wellbeing of the students we serve. Changing course is difficult but it can be done, and the success of our students, their families, their employers, and the economy depend on our willingness to make it happen.